SMELLS LIKE STARS by D. Nandi Odhiambo


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Odhiambo's (The Reverend's Apprentice, 2008) new novel explores life in a vaguely located Canadian resort town on the Pacific coast called Ogweyo Cove.

A German-Canadian journalist named Kerstin Ostheim is preparing to marry P.J. Banner, a photographer who is torn between the worlds of his white father and his Indigenous mother. Meanwhile, Kerstin's trans daughter, Schuld, struggles with society's prejudice against her identity. She has two comforts—her art and her boyfriend, Woloff, a Kenyan Olympic athlete who is trying to regain his confidence after his career has come to a premature end. Further afield, Kerstin's father is running for another term as governor (of what, we are never told), while P.J.'s father succumbs to health problems triggered by his stressful business dealings. This novel is told in a clumsy present tense, with prose that sometimes borders on nonsensical ("Sirens bray down wind between the present and future perfect, and out of place in the sensible order of things they hate for real"). Readers may detect a faint plot regarding a spate of mysterious horse killings that Kerstin and P.J. decide to investigate, but it is perfunctory at best; the novel never seems very interested in solving that mystery. Mostly, Odhiambo cycles between characters, presenting episodes from their pasts while neglecting to investigate how these episodes inform the complexity of their relationships in the present. Despite the present tense, few events feel urgent or weighty, so that most of the narrative proceeds in an abstracted haze. When Woloff and Schuld are assailed in a supermarket by an angry man, for instance, the story seems to be building toward some kind of crisis, but it's a false alarm; the happy couple merely sidesteps the aggressor and goes back to Woloff's house to "get lit." The same sense of abstraction plagues the setting: Place names and cultural references are maddeningly unspecific, making it difficult for readers to feel absorbed in the story. This novel wants to wrestle with heavy issues of identity, history, and the legacy of European colonialism, but its vague setting, ill-defined cultural references, and psychologically flat characters render these insights flimsy.

An awkward exploration of contemporary multiculturalism.

Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-77166-423-3
Page count: 220pp
Publisher: Bookthug
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2018


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